The Cowboys have a conundrum at cornerback.
The question is how they got there.
Two years ago, the Cowboys were the envy of the league with both cornerbacks Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins making the Pro Bowl. They were the only team in the league to do so and it was the first time in team history that the feat was accomplished by a pair of Cowboys' corners.
But clearly that was then and this is now. Newman and Jenkins went from strengths to liabilities in 2010 with both having awful seasons. In fact, the best graded cornerback on the team in 2010 was nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who played with a broken finger and gave up seven touchdowns.
It didn't help Newman and Jenkins that the safety play behind them was poor or that the Cowboys didn't mount a consistent pass rush, forcing them to cover longer than expected.
But what's also true is that neither Newman or Jenkins played up to expectations themselves. For Newman the story is a familiar one. He suffered an injury early in the season and it affected him for the rest of the year. For Jenkins, one wonders if he got too cocky after his Pro-Bowl season and rested on his laurels rather than put in the work to get better.
Jenkins, however, will be afforded more patience because he is a young player who has shown the potential to be special. With better coaching, focus and hard work, he should get back to his former Pro-Bowl form.
The situation is different with Newman because of his age and salary. Historically, it's better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late. Newman is due $9 million next season. He will turn 33 before the season opener.
The question is whether his poor play simply a matter of injury and few bad plays or the signs of advancing age.
While many expect the Cowboys to give Newman another chance - owner Jerry Jones always hangs on to his players too long and they have other possibly more pressing needs -- they are doing their due diligence by scouting cornerbacks and looking for a Newman replacement.
The best option at the top of the draft is Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara. He is strong and fast and would be an ideal pick at No. 9. The Cowboys brought Amukamara in for a predraft visit this week, one week after hosting 29 other national prospects. He will get an up close and personal session with the Cowboys to convince them why he should be the pick at No. 9.
If the Cowboys don't go with Amukamara, they could look at Texas cornerback Aaron Williams late in the first round or early in the second round. Williams will eventually be a safety but he will start off at cornerback.
The Cowboys need to make a decision and look for cornerbacks because Scandrick will be a free agent after the 2011 season and they don't need to be looking for two top cornerbacks if they hang onto Newman one more year.
--What is the opposite of safety?
Disaster? Well that probably the fits because the safety play in Dallas has been a disaster since the departure of Darren Woodson years ago.
Free disaster. Strong disaster. Both positions have been abominable in Dallas. This position is a must upgrade for the Cowboys heading into 2011 after a 2010 season that featured the worst pass defense and secondary play in club history.
The last line of defense was simply no defense at all, thanks largely to the struggles of free safety Alan Ball who was in his first year as a starter after being moved from cornerback. Ball made bad decisions in coverage and didn't offer support as a tackler. But his struggles were expected considering he was a converted cornerback.
The fall of Gerald Sensabaugh was most troubling to the Cowboys, who at the end of the 2009 season talked about him being a cornerstone of the future along with plans of signing him to a long-term contract extension. Sensabaugh made few plays with the Cowboys in 2010 and was such a non-factor that the Cowboys didn't tender him a free-agent contract offer, choosing to let him become a free agent and test the market. There is a chance that Sensabaugh could be back because of finances and limited options, but he is no longer in the Cowboys' future.
Another disappointment last year was the inability of draft pick Akwasi Owusu-Ansah to get on the field for any meaningful impact. The Cowboys expected him to be a slower developer because he came from tiny Indiana (Pa.). However, he was limited in training camp and minicamp because of injuries and then was lost for the season after just a few games with a high ankle sprain. The Cowboys put him on injured reserve and didn't wait for him to return from the six-week injury because they didn't think he could help them.
The bright spots at safety were rookie free agents Barry Church and Danny McCray. That both made impacts on special teams and Church saw the field as a replacement for an injured Sensabaugh was the highlights considering the low expectations for both coming into the season. Both are intriguing in that they have potential but neither has shown enough that they should be considered answers at the position.
The question is where the Cowboys turn for help. Raiders safety Michael Huff is from the Dallas area and is a former Texas Longhorn. He is the most logical option on the free-agent market. The question there is price. Huff wants to come home and play for the Cowboys. Are the Cowboys willing to pay to get him?
Another potential option is Bears free-agent safety Danieal Manning. He is also a Texas native from nearby Corsicana, which is right outside the Dallas area.
As far as the draft is concerned, the Cowboys are eyeballing Texas cornerback Aaron Williams with the hopes of possibly moving him to safety. But they will have to acquire an additional first-round pick to get him as he is projected to go between picks 18-32. The Cowboys pick at nine and don't pick again until the top of the second round.
Another middle-round option might be North Carolina safety Da'Norris Searcy. He and Williams visited the Cowboys on Tuesday and Wednesday when they conducted 30 pre-draft visits.
--The Cowboys' biggest need numbers-wise is defensive end, where they only have one player under contract in veteran Igor Olshansky.
Marcus Spears, who has been a starter at left end since being picked in the first round of the 2005 draft, is a free agent. The Cowboys made no attempt to re-sign him as he has been mediocre at best over the past five years.
That they tendered him less than his backups as a restricted free agent last season spoke volumes about what they thought of Spears.
That being said the two backups who made more than Spears -- Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher -- are restricted free agents this season. The Cowboys tendered them contract offers. But depending on how things go with the collective bargaining agreement they could end up being unrestricted free agents. Bottom line there is no guarantee they will be back.
What also should be noted is that neither player has proven they can be a full-time starter. The Cowboys like the role they played as backups in their four years but neither could unseat the maligned Spears as the starter. Even when Spears was injured last year, neither Bowen or Hatcher proved to be difference-makers themselves.
Bowen is a good nickel pass rusher. The Cowboys certainly want him to return to fill that need.
This brings us to the 2011 draft and the plethora of options that appear to be available for the Cowboys.
The list of potential 3-4 defensive ends that are considered top-10 caliber picks are Marcell Dareus, Robert Quinn, Nick Fairley, Da'Quan Bowers, Cameron Jordan and J.J. Watt.
Dareus and Fairley are more suited to 4-3 tackle but they could play end in the 3-4. Both figure to be long gone by the time the Cowboys pick, but if they are available they would be hard to pass up because they are considered among the top five prospects in the entire draft.
Bowers has an injury concern that could cause him to slide down the board while Quinn, Jordan and Watt are projected to go right around where the Cowboys are picking.
The Cowboys must come out of this draft with one and possibly two players that can play end in the 3-4.
The question is whether they take one with the ninth overall pick. Only Dareus and Fairley project as truly elite prospects.
And considering the minimal impact the end has in a 3-4 defense, the Cowboys must decide if they are going to use the ninth pick on a special impact player at another position or a guy who will be a solid contributor at end -- especially when they can possibly get that guy later in the draft.
--The Cowboys have identified that improving offensive line play is a top offseason priority.
The running game, pass protection and short-yardage ground attack has struggled the past two years because of age and injury.
The question is how they go about doing it with so many aging veterans with big-money contracts tied to them. As a result, the Cowboys can't make wholesale changes and make moves at every position that need addressing on the line.
But if truth be told only left tackle Doug Free is completely untouchable. He was the team's best lineman last season in only his first year at left tackle. He is a restricted free agent and could become unrestricted once the lockout ends depending on the new CBA.
The Cowboys have identified him as a priority to sign long term.
Veteran left guard Kyle Kosier is a free agent. The Cowboys made no attempt to sign him to a contract before free agency. They could bring him back after the lockout, but he has been injured a lot the past two years and it's time for an upgrade.
The real problem is on the right side where tackle Marc Colombo is a shell of his former self. He can't stay healthy because of chronic knee problems that have limited his effectiveness in pass protection as outside rushers give him fits.
The Cowboys are definitely in the market to find an offensive tackle in the draft to possibly replace Colombo. Southern Cal's Tyron Smith is a possibility with the ninth overall pick in the draft. He is athletic enough to play on the left side. He is too good to pass up.
He would give the Cowboys the option of moving Free back to the right side. Colombo is due a $2.6 million option bonus on the 15th day of the league year or soon after the lockout ends. The Cowboys may not pay it and cut him to save room on a potential cap, which would put a drafted tackle in play for the starting job.
The problem is they can't make that move until after the draft because of the lockout.
Guard Leonard Davis had three straight Pro-Bowl seasons after coming over from Arizona with the richest contract ever given to a Cowboys' offensive lineman. However, it may be time to cut the cord with Davis, whose play has declined steadily the past two years and now he is a liability on the line.
The question is whether they can afford to make the move financially with so much money still tied up in Davis.
The Cowboys are definitely looking at guards in the draft. The team is bringing in Baylor guard Danny Watkins for a pre-draft visit. He projected to go in the middle of the first round.
Watkins is an intriguing prospect because he was a firefighter in his hometown before he decided to play football at the age of 22. He will be a 27-year-old rookie.
At 6-3, 312 pounds, Watkins started two years at tackle for Baylor but he is projected to play guard in the NFL. That he can do both only adds to his versatility and attractiveness to the Cowboys.
He would be an option if the Cowboys trade down.
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